Last week the #SchoolStrike #FridaysForFuture phenomenon hit London streets again as several thousand school students rallied in Parliament Square and then set off on an impromptu march passing Downing Street and then via Trafalgar Square to the Embankment. Looping back towards parliament, the march lurched left across Westminster Bridge where students sat across the road to stage a blockade.
On the northbound carriageway police officers were heard telling students that an ambulance needed to pass by, and as a result the young protesters stood up and moved out of the way. But no ambulance materialised, and very soon they angrily restored their sit-down action blocking the entire bridge once more. Responding to queries, Inspector Sadler stated that he had not instructed his officers to tell students there was an actual ambulance but that it was an ambulance route, however several students confirmed they’d been clearly advised by individual officers that an emergency vehicle was actually trying to get through.
This is reminiscent of an incident last October when Extinction Rebellion protesters were asked to open up a route for an ambulance through Parliament Square, and although in that case there was an actual ambulance, it was not showing blue lights, didn’t appear to be in any hurry, and was followed by a carefully planned police operation with dozens of public order officers following its route and preventing protesters from retaking that piece of road.
Both these events raise very serious questions if police are actually using emergency vehicles as a lever against peaceful protests in this way. The cynicism of such a tactic risks a possible ‘Cry Wolf’ response from demonstrators who might wrongly suspect a future ‘emergency’ is not all it seems, and real lives might be risked in such a situation. Both Extinction Rebellion and student groups have publicly stated that they would move in response to the need for emergency access, but if police repeatedly use such a situation to open up roadways and facilitate their own police operations then this agreement might be placed in future jeopardy.
Last week, police also mobilised one of their petapixel camera vans equipped with facial recognition and other technology. Questions must be asked about how data is being gathered and used about peaceful school students, many of them well under 18, and most of whom moved off the bridge after holding an open mic rally. Since these young people left without warnings, cautions, or arrests, what would a reasonable democratic society deem necessary in terms of gathering and holding this level of surveillance data on them, and why is it so difficult to scrutinise how this information is used?
A small group refused to leave the bridge, taking a principled stand on the urgency of the climate and ecological emergency. One spoke about the women’s suffrage movement and how young women who had been arrested at that time are now regarded as heroes. Police made three arrests on suspicion of obstructing the highway.